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Sermon at Bishop John Kirkham’s Thanksgiving Service, November 2019

by Michael Ford last modified 18 Nov, 2019 01:21 PM

At Salisbury Cathedral, 15 November 2019

Philippians 4.4-9
John 14.1-6

John wanted a small and private cremation and this Thanksgiving Service before which we buried his ashes in the cloisters. Three years ago he was surprised at the suggestion that he should preside at a Eucharist in the Trinity Chapel of the cathedral to mark his 40th anniversary of consecration. He wondered if anyone would come and was surprised that we did. He would have been very touched that so many have come today on a cold and damp Friday afternoon in November, each of us giving thanks that we had a special relationship with him.

On the back of the pectoral cross given him at his consecration by Archbishop Donald Coggan, was inscribed in Latin part of the verse from 1 Corinthians 9.16: “Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel”. At this service, John did not want a eulogy. He told me to preach the Gospel. I find it almost impossible to comply because we have gathered in his memory to give thanks for his life; except that John lived the life he preached, “In Christ” and that is the gospel.

The virtues by which he lived are the virtues that we read of in the passage from Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always… let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

John’s almost daily commitment in retirement, was to volunteer in the spinal injuries unit at the Salisbury District Hospital. When he first went, no one knew who he was. That didn’t last long but in relative anonymity he was able to rediscover what it meant to be a Deacon, an ordained servant pushing the patients in their beds and taking them out into the remarkable garden created in memory of Horatio Chapple.

The daughter of one of the patients wrote:

"I remember ‘volunteer’ John expertly pushing (guiding) the beds (with patients) through the wards, down to the lifts and into the gym or the garden. Several times people came to ‘help’ at the other end of the bed, but in his kind and elegant way he reminded them that he was controlling the bed from a motor at his end… His quiet but definite command [was] a metaphor on so many levels.
"It took me a while to realise where I had seen him. One-day he wore a purple polo neck and I realised, he’s the Bishop."

When the patients and carers were all seated in the South Transept for the Darkness to Light service,

"Volunteer John, now Bishop John…, appeared before us. Mitre and all!... He did not seem to walk he just smoothed along."

These patients know in their own lives what was really involved in the journey from darkness to light and the service gave form to their spiritual experience, renewing their hope, encouraged by John, volunteer, deacon, priest and bishop.

John was consecrated on 30th November, St Andrew’s Day, in 1976. At 41 he was one of the youngest bishops in the Church of England. He served in the same diocese for 43 years, as Bishop of Sherborne for 25 years and then as an honorary Assistant Bishop. For 9 years he was also Bishop to the Armed Forces. He loved getting out and about.

In the diocese he had the reputation of a bishop who was disciplined and prayerful, tough and compassionate. As St Paul said, “Consider the kindness and the severity of God.” One of the clergy said, “He should have kept goal for England because you couldn’t get anything past him.” He loved, and he was much loved.

He was born into a clerical family and grew up in a big rectory at Mottisfont, loving and close but no money and no heating. From the garden the family watched the bombing of Southampton’s docks. After Lancing and Trinity Cambridge he was commissioned in the Royal Hampshire’s. Asked where he wanted to serve he thought that the King’s Africa Rifles sounded romantic with a hint of the desert and Lawrence of Arabia. He found himself in Kenya up against the Mau Mau. The hardship and danger of active service gave him enormous credibility as Bishop to the Forces visiting conflict zones in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Bosnia, Croatia and so on.

John trained for ordination at Westcott House. After a curacy in Ipswich there were a series of chaplaincies to bishops – Launcelot Fleming in Norwich, and a year with the Bishop of Papua New Guinea. After brief periods as an assistant at St Martin-in-the-Fields and St Margaret’s Westminster he was chaplain to two Archbishops, Michael Ramsey and Donald Coggan.

About his appointment here the then Bishop of Salisbury, George Reindorp, wrote that John’s experiences meant he brought a wide vision to the diocese and had slept in almost every episcopal residence in the Anglican Communion. He had an extraordinary memory. Soon after his arrival in the diocese he gave from memory the phone number of the British Embassy in Moscow. I wonder who asked, and why?

Many remember his outstanding pastoral care, his smile and his obvious, infectious faith. He was supported by his sister, Anne, who for many years was his secretary. He exercised an extraordinary ministry across Dorset. He gave stability and depth of knowledge. He was instinctively relational.

Bishop John baptised the now Dean of Gloucester then in his early teens and confirmed him, sponsored his training for ordination, ordained him, said the Nuptial Mass at his wedding and put him into his first incumbency. As a student about to begin his training Stephen Lake went to see the bishop to ask permission to get engaged knowing that he and Carol couldn’t get married for three years until he finished his training. Much to his surprise, Bishop John said, “No, get married as soon as possible”. Days later the Bishop announced his own engagement to Hester Lockett Gregory. Her family became his family. They were married in the chapel at Lambeth Palace by Archbishop Robert Runcie. Bishop John Neale, Bishop of Ramsbury, was his best man.

Hester was courageous to take on this new venture with Bishop John in England. Their friendship began in 1984 because of a shared love of history. John was one of the party from Sherborne to mark the 400th anniversary of the first British settlers in America – Walter Raleigh, Sherborne Castle and all that. Whilst staying in Hester’s home, she told him about her PhD research on the social mobility aspects of horse ownership in medieval England. She said she was having difficulty gaining access to the Wimborne Chained Library to which he replied, “I’m your man”. Theirs was a marriage of wonderful companionship and Hester was an immense support and contributor in their ministry of friendship and hospitality.

In his retirement John continued to be active in all sorts of ways. He helped in churches across the diocese and was supportive of his successors. He was extraordinarily well connected and sometimes was so well informed he knew what I didn’t yet know. He loved to be part of the services in this Cathedral which he first visited aged 3. The final hymn at this service is the final hymn at the Advent service. It points us to the completion of God’s work on earth as it is in heaven.

John bore his final illness with patience and fortitude. He did not want to be a burden or anxiety to anyone. “Oh, how kind of you to come. You are much too busy to see me, you shouldn’t have. How are you?” He really didn’t like talking about himself.

On my last visit to celebrate Communion with just him, I was a bit flustered. I took a candle but forgot to light it. I forgot to take a stole. He didn’t comment but when I did he smiled and said, “Oh I thought it was just a liturgical innovation”. Even in discomfort, he put others at their ease.

In John’ Bible was a small slip of paper on which he had written, and from which he read daily:
As I look at my life – I thank God for every moment. I have struggled and tried but only seem to have failed. As I pray that God in his mercy may forgive me and bring some good out of what I have tried to do, I commend all to him and may others learn what to be through what I am not and may his peace rest on all whom I love [to which he had added] especially Hester. May they rejoice in Christ as I do.

He lived in Christ. That is the Gospel. In John, the Lord is near.

Thanks be for him and to God be glory now and forever. Amen.

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